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Beginner Basics,  Pests,  Wildlife

Organic Pest Control, Part 1: How to Prevent Pests in the Garden

So you have “bugs” in your garden? Guess what? You’re not alone. We have bugs in our garden too! And we’re perfectly okay with that. Some of them we even put there intentionally! An organic garden is more than a place to grow food, and it is certainly not a place for growing flawless, unblemished food. An organic garden is an ecosystem! It should be full of life, of all types. It is not a sterile place. Pests are an inherent part of organic gardening. However, there are may simple and organic pest prevention techniques you can use to reduce their presence and damage ~ naturally!

Let’s talk about pests, baby…

The subject of organic pest management is complex, and one that I am excited to discuss with you! But I think we need to break it down into digestible components. Just as I felt I couldn’t dive in and tell you “how to grow cannabis” before providing some background information, disclaimers, and a holistic discussion on the subject first… pests control deserves the same! We need to lay a foundation, before covering the various organic methods you can use to manage pests. Plus, it would be impossible for me to solve all your potential pest problems in one article!

“Organic Pest Control: Part 1” will explore our philosophy and approach to pests. This includes defining exactly what a pest is, how you view their presence in the garden, the concepts of Integrated Pest Management, plus organic techniques for pest prevention.

A close up of a ladybug perched on a cluster of not-yet-bloomed bok choy flower buds. There are little fuzzy grey aphids tucked between the flower buds below the ladybug. Yellow flowers blur in the background.
This lady is on the hunt! Can you spot the aphids below her? Did you know that ladybugs can eat up to 50 aphids per day? That is about 5,000 aphids over the course of their short lifetime!


If you’re thinking “get to the point and tell us how to get rid of pests already!”, let me tell you: this post IS the point. In our view, the best pest control comes from being proactive, rather than reactive. Pest prevention and mindfulness are key.

I will write a follow-up article on how to find and identify common pests in the garden soon. Additionally, articles are on the way about using beneficial insects, physical barriers, manual control methods, tricks and traps, and as a last resort, a few organic products we use to deal with pest infestations. Stay tuned! (Edit: See this post to learn how to ID the top 18 garden pests, and this article with over 25 ways to battle pests in the garden)


First things first….


WHAT IS A PEST?

“A pest is any living organism, whether animal, plant or fungus, which is invasive or troublesome to plants or animals, human or human concerns, livestock, or human structures. It is a loose concept, as an organism can be a pest in one setting but beneficial, domesticated, or acceptable in another.”

Wikipedia


In this series of organic pest control articles, I am going to include examples of how we approach all sorts of pests, ranging from insects and wildlife to diseases and infections. Keep in mind that we may not struggle with the same types of pests that you do! Pests vary widely by location, but I will try my best to cover the key players. Here, we struggle most with aphids, cabbage moth worms, pillbugs, wild birds, gophers, leaf miners, and powdery mildew.

While there are many definitions of the word “pest” out there, I like the one above best. It reminds us that every organism has a place in this world. While we may prefer that their “place” not to be our gardens, we can’t just go around killing things without consideration of that idea.

I would also like to point out that most definitions of pests mention “human concern”, “bother”, or “annoyance”. Thus, your mindset and personal level of concern dictates just how troublesome the pest really is. Do yourself a favor: do not freak out or get angry over every little aphid, caterpillar, or hole munched! Chillax. It will all be okay!

We don’t let holes in our greens bother us. A little caterpillar poop doesn’t alarm us. It can be washed off! If there are a few aphids that need to be brushed away? Oh well. We are pretty laid back when it comes to that sort of thing.


Our Approach to Organic Pest Control


We are often asked “How do you keep pests out of your garden?” Simply put: we don’t. If you’re looking for a quick-and-dirty, “spray XYZ to kill them” type of answer, I’m afraid you won’t find it here. On this homestead, we utilize a wide variety of organic pest management strategies to prevent them from completely ruining our garden, but they are still present. Some of our solutions do take a bit more time and effort than spraying chemicals. But then again, some of them are as easy as “do nothing!”

Are you familiar with the concept of Integrated Pest Management? It is a practice I learned about in college, and what we follow in our garden – for the most part!

“The goal of Integrated Pest Management is not to eradicate pests, but to eliminate pest problems by strengthening and stabilizing the landscape so that conditions are more favorable for plants than for pests.  By using scouting and monitoring practices for pests (insects, other arthropods, weeds, pathogens or vertebrates), actions to suppress population levels can be made in a timely manner, using a combination of the most environmentally-friendly and cost-effective tactics available.”

City of Santa Fe


A triangle image, with 5 levels, like a food pyramid. The first, largest bottom section of the pyramid says prevention. Then going up, the next four sections say Cultural/Sanitation, Physical/Mechanical, Biological, then finally the smallest tip is Chemical
Photo courtesy of City of Santa Fe


Adding to that, a traditional IPM program may implement the use of pesticides, but only after all other preferable options have been exhausted. According to the University of California, “treatments are made with the goal of removing only the targeted organism, and in a way that minimizes risk to human health, beneficial and non-target organisms, and the environment”. I don’t necessarily love this part. Let me explain.

While well-intentioned, some IPM programs may resort to using pesticides that are not certified for organic gardening. Many certified organic farmers use IPM methods, but IPM is not necessarily synonymous with certified organic. That is where we differ. We try to be as close to certified organic as possible.

As a last resort, we may use neem oil sprays, soap sprays, and a few other mild products that are OMRI-listed for organic gardening, but we never use chemical pesticides. Additionally, because IPM is often applied in larger-scale, for-profit farming operations, their threshold for acceptable damage is likely much lower than ours. Unfortunately, the average customer expects blemish-free produce, which leads them to escalate their pest control measures more rapidly than we would.

Many organic home gardeners, ourselves included, have a higher tolerance for a little pest damage than farmers.

Which leads us to…


ACCEPTANCE

Insects, wildlife, and “pests” are part of nature. If you are attracting these guys to your garden, take that as a compliment! This means you have created a place that is hospitable for living things, which sure beats pavement and manicured, chemically-fertilized lawns. In an organic garden, you should expect to see some pests. Furthermore, try to learn to accept them, and get used to working with them. Healthy, organic gardens and farms shouldn’t be aseptic and devoid of life! Let’s leave that to Monstano, monoculture, and conventional farming please. Yuck, and no thank you.


Our garden is not “perfect”


I am here to say, loud and proud, that we have PLENTY of little nibble holes in our greens. Our soil is writhing with lifeforms of all sorts! When we’re not on top of things, birds and gophers will sometimes destroy entire plants. Sure… it can be annoying, but such is life. Perfection is not the goal.

While preparing this article, I wandered around the garden to snap photos of examples of pests that are currently on our plants. In only 10 minutes, I was able to find and document aphid issues, leaf miners, pillbugs, bird damage, powdery mildew, cabbage moth caterpillars, and gopher mounds! See? Not perfect.

A close up of a kale leaf, held up in front of the sun and sky with trees in the background. the leaf veins are lit up yellow, and sun rays shine through the small holes in the leaf
Absolutely nothing wrong with this kale leaf.


We do NOT let food go to waste just because it has blemishes or bugs. I hope you won’t either! We regularly eat caterpillar-munched greens. If a radish, apple, tomato, or other produce item has a burrowing insect inside, we simply cut away that part eat the rest.

Personally, I would rather consume holey, healthy, organic greens than ones laced with toxic chemicals. Hell, I would rather eat aphids and tiny caterpillars on occasion (which totally happens!) than use harsh pesticides in our garden.

Insects won’t give you cancer. Pesticides on the other hand…

Within a human or animal body, pesticides may be metabolized, excreted, stored, or bioaccumulated in body fat. The numerous negative health effects that have been associated with chemical pesticides include damaging dermatological, gastrointestinal, neurological, carcinogenic, respiratory, reproductive, and endocrine-disrupting effects. Residues of pesticides can be found in a great variety of everyday foods and beverages, including cooked meals, water, wine, fruit juices, refreshments, and animal feeds. Furthermore, it should be noted that washing and peeling cannot completely remove the residues.

Nicolopoulou-Stamati, Maipas, Kotampasi, Stamatis and Hens, 2016: Front Public Health



Get to Know Your Bugs

It is important to remember that not all insects are harmful to your plants. Many are playing an important symbiotic role in your garden. For example, many insects mostly eat detritus and decaying things rather than fresh healthy plants. They’re helping to break down organic matter that in turn feeds your garden. Other insects work within the soil to fertilize and aerate it for you. Worms are a prime example! Some of the best beneficial insects will do you a solid and eat other pesky insects.

As an organic gardener, you’ll want to learn to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys, so you don’t accidentally take action against a beneficial insect. See the examples below, and learn more about identifying pests versus beneficial insects here.

Four images of lady beetles at different stages of life. The top two images are a close up of their larval form, which look long and slender with orange and black bumps, but not like a true beetle yet. Then bottom two images are of a more classic ladybug. One is on a kale plant eating aphids, and the other shows a hand holding dozens of ladybugs, being released into the garden.
These are all images of ladybugs, in various stages of life! In their larval form (top), they’re the most ferocious consumers of aphids of all! These are very good insects to have in your garden. Yet most people don’t recognize them in this state, and can confuse them as pests.


If you aren’t already, you’ll also need to try to get comfortable with touching bugs. No, I don’t mean willingly picking up a huge spider! But, some of the quickest and easiest manual methods for organic pest control include touching insects. For example, smushing aphids or small pest caterpillars with your fingers when you spot them.

When I talk about “acceptance”, I do not necessarily mean to let pests run a muck and destroy your garden, with no care or attempt to stop them. If they’re causing mass destruction, you most certainly should step in! We’ll talk about control methods in another post. However, when an organic garden is healthy and in harmony, pests are often times kept in check through natural balance. The need for intervention can be minimal, which is ideal. Next, we’ll talk about ways to achieve that harmony and balance.


PEST PREVENTION

The first step of implementing organic pest control strategies in your garden is pest prevention. By building a healthy soil, nourishing your plants well, choosing and arranging plants with purpose and thought, and providing routine care and maintenance, pests can often be kept at a minimum ~ naturally!

Let’s go over all the ways you can help prevent disease and pests in your garden, by keeping it as happy and healthy as possible.


Pest Prevention through Plant Health


Just like human health and our immune systems, the same principles apply to plants. The best way to fight disease is to take care of yourself and prevent it from occurring in the first place, as well as you can. Eat well. Exercise. Find balance between work and rest. Avoid toxic products, processed food, and junk. Go organic. While it may take a little more effort upfront, the long-term reward is worth it!

Furthermore, think of chemical pesticides like prescription drugs in our society. The quick easy fix. Overused and abused. Both are often used to temporarily mask unpleasant symptoms, but are not effective at fixing the deeper issues. Exactly like prescription drugs, the negative side effects usually outweigh the benefit they are supposedly providing!

The healthier our plants are, the more resilient they’ll be to disease and pests. Pests are known to be drawn to weak, sickly plants. Weak, sickly plants will also be more easily affected and overcome by pests. It is a vicious cycle.

Nourish your garden. Nourish yourself. Repeat.

There are many ways to boost your plants health and immune systems! First and foremost, they need to be happy in their home. And by home, I mean soil.


Pest Prevention by Improving your Soil


Create and maintain the healthiest soil possible by using plenty of rich aged compost, mild organic amendments or fertilizers, and no harsh chemicals. This will help your plants flourish, and also keep the natural biology and soil food web in natural balance. To learn more about building the perfect organic soil, please see this post all about it!

If your soil is already established and you’re worried that it isn’t ideal, don’t fret. Continue to nourish it with compost, add worms and worm castings, and try using actively aerated compost tea! Worm castings are known as “black gold”, and rightly so. When added to your garden soil, they inoculate your soil with beneficial microbes. Worm castings increase soil aeration, drainage, and water retention. They also increase nutrient uptake by plants, aid in seed germination, increase overall vigor, and last but not least, improve the plants resistance to stress and disease.

Basically, worm castings or compost are like the probiotics and multivitamins of the plant medicine cabinet!

If you don’t have a worm compost bin already, this article will show you how to set up and maintain a super simple one! And here is a post to show you how to make actively aerated compost tea. Our worm bin plays a central role in our plant health and pest prevention practices.

A close up of a two cupped hands, holding red wiggler worms.
Worms give our garden life!


Pest Prevention through Diversity & Polyculture


Plant a wide variety of things to create biodiversity in your garden. This is a way to create balance, and also attract more beneficial insects. Additionally, variety and polyculturethe term for mixing many types of plants in one space – reduces the chances of widespread devastation by pests that are all attracted to the same crop. We try to spread out our crops through many beds in the garden.

For example, instead of putting all our tomatoes in one bed and all our peppers in another, we usually plant a few tomatoes in one bed, and a few in another, with peppers, flowers, and basil intermixed. The same goes for greens, squash, root veggies, and others. We rarely have one bed with only one type of veggie in it. That way, pests are less intensely drawn to one area or another. Also, if one area becomes infested with a pest insect, it makes it less easy for them to hop on over to the next plant.

A raised bed full of mixed types of greens, with green bean plants between the rows of greens, and also some onions and flowers mixed in as organic pest prevention through companion planting.
Separating rows of greens with green beans and companion flowers. The greens are in need of a good cut-and-come again harvesting ~ taking just a few of the outermost leaves from each plant.

Polyculture also reduces the spread and damage from disease that afflicts certain crops. Fungal diseases like powdery mildew or garlic rust can easily spread from plant to plant by leaves touching. Try your best to follow the prescribed spacing recommendation for plants. This is particularly important for ones you find prone to pests! Crowded plants with less airflow are more susceptible to disease, especially mildews and fungus

Keeping things mixed up and spaced out throughout the garden can help prevent your entire lot from being taken out. On the other end of the spectrum, planting a large amount of the same thing together (monoculture) leaves your plants vulnerable and “asking for it”.


Pest Prevention through Plant Selection


If you come to find that your area is prone to certain diseases or pest, see if you can find plant varieties that are naturally resistant to that issue! For example, we are able to find squash varieties that are resistant to powdery mildew – a huge problem here. Thanks Johnny’s Seeds! Additionally, we often times choose determinate varieties of tomato, ones that set fruit early and all at once. The plants can come and go more quickly – before the powdery mildew takes hold. This way, we don’t even bother trying to treat for it.

An image looking down on a raised bed full of plants. There is a large squash plant with variegated leaves and long dark green zucchini present. Also are orange calendula flowers, green and purple basil, another squash plant, and marigolds. A perfect example of companion planting for pest prevention.
The squash with white spots does NOT have disease! This is actually a powdery mildew-resistant type of zucchini! Dunja zucchini from Johnny’s seeds. The pattern on the leaves is just its natural variegated leaf pattern, which many types of squash and melon have. You can distinguish it from mildew or a fungal disease by the even symmetrical patterns. Also, it is not raised or fuzzy like most mildews are. Powdery mildew most often starts on the underside of leaves.


Even the color of fruits and vegetables can make them more pest resistant! Did you know that pest insects and birds are less drawn to purple or red veggies than their green counterparts? Meaning, if you plant purple kale and red cabbage, you’re less likely to find cabbage worm damage on them than green kale and green cabbage. With fruit on the other hand, we have found that wild birds completely ignore our Desert King Fig because of its green color. The birds will peck at our other types of figs once they’re ripe – the ones that turn purple and red as they mature. The Desert King is a green-ripening fig, meaning its outer skin stays green even when the inside is red and juicy. The lack of color change makes the birds not attracted to it!

Another disease and pest prevention best practice is to start your own seedlings from seed at home, with fresh seedling start mix. In doing this, you can select specific varieties with appealing attributes like I just mentioned above. When seed-shopping, keep an eye out for disease or pest resistant properties that would specifically help with something you struggle with in your garden. There are seed varieties naturally bred to resist mosaic virus, blight, nematodes, fusarium wilt, root rot, leaf curl virus, various mildews ,and more! Just make sure they’re certified non-GMO!

When you buy and bring home already-started seedlings from the garden center, there is a slight risk of introducing new pests or problems to your garden. Make sure to look them over carefully! Check out these posts for more info: all about how to start seeds, where to buy organic and non-gmo seeds, or how to choose the best seedlings at the nursery.

Last but not least, try to choose plants that are known to do well in your growing zone and area. This will help reduce stress. Furthermore, ensure you are growing them during the right season! Let’s set our babies up for success, shall we? If you aren’t sure when to grow what, talk to other local gardeners, the staff at your local nursery, or reference your garden planning toolkit (described below) to get a better idea!


Pest Prevention through Companion Plants


The practice of companion planting can have a favorable impact on preventing disease and pests. There are many plants that you can grow along side veggies and fruits that help mitigate them! Companion plants can both deter pests, and attract beneficial insects and pollinators to your garden.

For example, french marigolds are said to prevent root-knot nematodes when planted with tomatoes, melon, and squash. Put dill alongside cabbage and other brassicas to attract beneficial parasitic wasps that can reduce the presence and damage of cabbage moth worms. Nasturtiums deter cucumber beetles, while also serving as “trap plant” to attract aphids and cabbage moths to them – and away from your crops.

We always try to mix calendula, marigolds, zinnia, and basil among all our summer vegetables. I recently planted onions intermixed with our aphid-prone swiss chard, because onions repel aphids. Garlic does the same. Guess what? It has been working! We currently have some aphids on the swiss chard planted without onion companions, but none on those by the onions! Natural pest prevention for the win.

A wood raised garden bed overflowing with plants. In it is a mix of green and red swiss chard, tall onion greens all around and between them, plus a sunflower, mustard greens, nasturtium climbing up the trellis behind it.  This is demonstrating the idea of polyculture as pest prevention.
Polyculture and companion plants. The onions are helping keep aphids off the swiss chard, and preventing the chickens from pecking at them too. Chickens don’t like onions nearly as much as chard! Nearby are other beneficial companion plants, including nasturtium and marigold. Yep, one chard is bolting… It has been there for 7 months!


The list of applications for companion planting goes on and on. The subject of companion planting deserves a dedicated post of its own, which you can find here. You can also get a full list of companion plant relationshipswho likes to be planted with who, and who doesn’t in an easy-to-reference chart within the Homestead and Chill free Garden Planning Toolkit. It also includes planting calendars to help you determine the best time of year to grow things, for every USDA hardiness zone!



Pest Prevention Through Garden Maintenance & Crop Rotation


Maintenance doesn’t equal meticulous. Do not be overly tidy in your garden! Meaning, do not remove every bit of detritus (debris, miscellaneous plant bits) from your soil and garden beds. Sure… you don’t want a bunch of stuff piling up, because that can attract pests. But leave behind a little something that you don’t care about for the insects to chew on if they want.

For example, to promote growth in young green seedlings (plants like kale, bok choy, mustards, collards, etc), we routinely pluck off the oldest, smallest, outermost leaves of the plants. The leaves that aren’t worth eating, much to the chickens dismay, we leave lying on the soil around the base of the plants. This gives the pillbugs and millipedes something to munch on, rather than our crops. Many insects are detritus eaters – they prefer decaying matter. If everything is too tidy and there is no detritus available, those insects will be drawn to our plants instead!

An image of small holey leaves laying on the soil surface between taller, healthier collard green plants. They're left there intentionally as pest prevention for the insects to eat, rather than the growing plants.
Pour one out for the homies.

Rotate your crops. This means, as much as possible, avoid growing the same plants in the same exact location year after year. Trust me, I realize this can be difficult! Especially if you are working with limited growing space or just a few garden beds. Just do the best you can. Experts suggest to not grow the same thing in the same spot for at least one year between crops, but two or more years is even better. Crop rotation helps to reduce  pests and disease, and especially helps prevent recurrence if your crops had issues in that spot!

One last garden maintenance recommendation is about water. Your plants will feel less stressed if you develop a consistent watering routine, and prove regular and even moisture. Avoid letting them fully dry out between watering, but also do not drown them.


Pest Prevention through Diligence


A very important step in preventing the presence of a few bugs from becoming a full-blown infestation is by checking on your garden often. Examine the plants and leaves closely, including the undersides of leaves – that is where many pests like to hang out! I try to look things over well about once per week. For example, if you can find a little cluster of aphids early on, just smush em’, wash them off, and keep a close eye on them to ensure they don’t come right back. No spraying or “treatment” needed!

Sure, this takes a little bit of time and effort. But inspecting frequently will help you catch a pest problem before they do too much irreversible damage. It is much more difficult to manage once a large population of insects has been established! I personally love being out there, fussing over the plants and getting to know them…

Detecting disease like mildew and fungus early on is important too. Often times, it can be easily treated with organic or natural homemade sprays if caught soon enough. In contrast, if the plant is heavily infected and starting to spread to other plants, it may be too late. That plant might need to be removed instead of treated.

Two images of a hand pulling back/up leaves to check the undersides and center of the plant for aphids, which are present and shown in little grey fuzzy clusters. Routinely checking your plants and catching issues early is an important step in pest prevention.
Checking the underside of leaves, and centermost tender new growth. Aphids are most commonly found here! I caught these early, wiped them away, and washed the plant off. Done.


Pest Prevention through Special or Targeted Treatments


One last way to prevent the impact of pests is to boost both soil and plant health with special treats for them. Look into amendments that might help prevent pest issues. For example, both crustacean or shrimp meal are fertilizers that can be added to garden soil, and are said to help ward off root-knot nematodes. Neem seed meal is a great natural fertilizer that can also deter harmful nematodes, parasitic fungus, aphids, and ants.

Our plants are spoiled. They get a very special treatment with aloe vera on occasion! Aloe vera also helps boost plant immune systems, increases nutrient uptake, and improves their resistance to drought, stress, and disease. We use fresh aloe vera to create a soil drench to water plants with – especially newly transplanted ones, as it helps reduce transplant shock! You can also use aloe vera to make foliar sprays, which we do for cannabis. To read more about how to grow and use aloe in the garden, check out this post.

Compost tea is another wonderful treat for your plant babes. Post coming soon!

A hand holding a blender, poised in front of a garden space. The blender is full of light green liquid. Two white 5-gallon buckets mostly full of water are also present in the foreground. The garden in the back ground is lit up with dozens of flowering plants of all colors, and has blue gravel pathways with light grey rectangle stepping stones, and wood raised beds in the far part of the yard.
Preparing an aloe vera soil drench to water freshly transplanted seedlings with, to boost their immune systems and increase nutrient uptake!



Pest Prevention through Physical Barriers


Fencing. Bird netting. Wire cages. Floating row covers. Gopher baskets. Weed cloth. These are just a few examples of physical barriers that you can use in your garden to reduce pest damage. As part of Integrated Pest Management, we use them extensively in ours! However, I am not going to delve into these options in detail quite yet.

While physical barriers can definitely prevent pests from accessing your garden and harming your plants, I consider them a “control” method, and not in line with the rest of this post.

Think about it this way: Not everyone will have issues with rabbits, deer, or squirrels. Some lucky people may not need to use physical barriers in their garden at all! Physical barriers are implemented in response to the presence of a “pest” or member of our local wildlife community visiting our individual gardens. Therefore, they’re more of a control method. We will cover various methods of pest control in a follow-up post!

On the other hand, all of the other concepts we have discussed today could (and should!) be applied to any garden.



When Pest Prevention Lets You Down…


All of the preventative measures we have talked about today, from building soil and plant health to choosing disease-resistant varieties, are excellent steps to take! They will certainly, most definitely help. But truth be told, these steps probably will not 100% protect and prevent your garden from an occasional pest problem. Even the healthiest gardens are susceptible to disease and pests. We have our fair share!

When we are experiencing a pest problem, the severity of the situation or infestation dictates what type of reaction we have. We always try to start with simple, manual and physical means of control first. If things start to get out of hand, we may step up our response to another level. But we always choose organic methods!

As with any good Integrated Pest Management approach, the type of pests we are dealing with also dictates our response.

Prevent, identify, then act!

The next post in this series is all about finding and identifying pests, before moving into actionable steps. Check it out here: “Organic Pest Control Part 2: How to Identify the Top 18 Pests & Beneficial Insects”. This article includes some tips and tricks for how to control those top 18 pests, but we’ll go into even more detail about that in Part 3!

In closing, dealing with pests can be frustrating. Trying to control nature is challenging. So instead, let’s work with nature and hopefully make it easier on everyone involved!

I hope you found these pest prevention and garden health tips useful! I also hope you found our philosophy and approach to organic pest control insightful and thought-provoking. Please let me know if you have any questions, and spread the love for organic gardening by sharing this post!

Deanna Cat's signature - keep on growing


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